What do the Offensive Lines of Elite Offenses ACTUALLY Look Like? Part 2

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Part 2: A look at the Pro Football Focus Grades of the offensive lines of the 10 best offenses in football.

To become the best, you should try to emulate the best.

With that in mind, and the NFL draft coming up in a month, I thought it'd be a good idea to just look at the offensive lines of the top-10 scoring offenses in 2013. In my previous article, I looked specifically at draft pedigrees and Pro Bowl selections last year to measure offensive line "talent" and performance last year. The conclusion I reached was that while a couple of very good offenses relied on 4 or more "early round" talents from the draft on their offensive line, the majority used only 2 or 3 "foundational" players on the offensive line surrounded by late-round talents who were "complementary." In other words, that review suggested that a top-10 offense can be constructed with an offensive line that has a near 50-50 mix of players drafted in the first 3 rounds and players who were drafted in rounds 4 and later. In addition, I found that the Dolphins already have more offensive linemen projected to start in 2014 who reached the Pro Bowl last season than 8 of the top-10 offenses last season, suggesting the Dolphins already had sufficient "elite" talent already signed for next season. Last, I found that nearly half of those top-10 offenses had least 1 rookie starter, and the 2nd best scoring offense in the NFL (Chicago Bears) actually started two rookies on their offensive line at right guard (1st rounder) and right tackle (5th rounder), and that didn't stop them from scoring 8 more points per game than the Dolphins last year.

So for this article, I thought I'd explore the makeup of those offensive lines in a different way. This time, I would evaluate those offensive lines of good offenses by using Pro Football Focus grades of their 2013 performance rather than relying on draft pedigree and Pro Bowl selections as proxies for "talent." After all, sometimes late round draft picks play at a high level, and sometimes, they get snubbed from the Pro Bowl, so there are flaws to relying on draft status and Pro Bowl selections as measures of talent. However, there are weaknesses to Pro Football Focus (PFF) grades, which are a cumulative score based on how a player performs on each snap.

For example, pretend there are 2 offensive linemen who are equally good run blockers and equally bad pass blockers. If one offensive lineman plays on a pass-heavy team, his "grade" will be lower than his "clone" who plays on a run-heavy team because the grades are cumulative. In this scenario, one player is being put into a system that emphasizes his strengths (run blocking) more than his weaknesses (pass blocking), while the other is in the opposite situation, so despite being "clones" with similar skillsets, one player will have a significantly worse grade than the other. In addition, a poor pass blocker who plays with a quarterback who gets rid of the ball quickly (Peyton Manning) will finish with a higher grade than a poor pass blocker who plays with a quarterback who tries to extend plays with his legs (Tim Tebow).

In both those cases, it's not the player's fault for his lower grade. Instead, his coaches and quarterback are putting him in situations that emphasize his weakness rather than his strength, while his "clone" is put in a better situation. The best real-life example of this potential flaw in grading is offensive guard Zane Beadles. In 2011, Zane Beadles was rated by PFF as the 3rd worst starting left guard in the NFL while playing in front of Tim Tebow. In 2012, Zane Beadles was rated as the 8th best left guard in the NFL while playing in front of Peyton Manning and made the Pro Bowl. While Beadles probably worked hard to improve during the 2012 offseason, it's very hard for a player to go from "terrible" to "Pro Bowler" in less than a year by himself, and that leap in performance based on PFF grades most likely had a lot to do with changing the QB.

Despite those weaknesses, I consider PFF grades to be the "best available" proxy for evaluating positions that don't traditionally put up stats, like offensive linemen, other than watching all 1000 snaps of a player on film. Aside from draft pedigree and Pro Bowl selections, PFF is the "least bad" statistical method for evaluating players - definitely imperfect, but better than most alternatives.

Offensive Line Rankings

Pro Football Focus publishes an annual ranking of offensive line performance, and some fans might be surprised to learn that PFF's analysis was that the Dolphins 2013 offensive line was not as bad as the "sacks allowed" total made it seem. While the sacks allowed total of 58 was high, the total number of pass pressures allowed (quarterback sacks, hits, and hurries) was close to average given how pass-heavy the Dolphins were. Also, the Dolphins' O-line wasn't penalized frequently, which led to the Dolphins offensive line being ranked the 21st best (or 11th worst) in the NFL.

21. Miami Dolphins
PB: 14th, RB: 28th, PEN: 11th

Analysis: Much was made of the sacks taken by Ryan Tannehill; they were somewhat simplistically used as a means to lament the play of the line in pass protection, but it wasn’t anywhere near as bad with the line producing a Pass Blocking Efficiency ranking right around the middle of the pack.

So first, I've included below the rankings of the offensive lines of the top-10 offenses in the NFL last year with the Dolphins' O-line stats of last year included as a comparison. The teams are ranked in order of scoring average (highest to lowest)

Team Pass Blocking Run Blocking Penalties Overall Rank
Denver Broncos 2 4 7 3
Chicago Bears 29 11 9 19
New England Patriots 19 15 1 14
Philadelphia Eagles 18 1 19 1
Dallas Cowboys 9 2 24 4
Cincinnati Bengals 1 5 12 2
Kansas City Chiefs 16 23 28 20
Green Bay Packers 3 17 16 10
Seattle Seahawks 25 23 30 27
New Orleans Saints 8 16 5 11
Miami Dolphins in 2013 14 28 11 21

So you might be wondering why the Eagles are ranked #1 despite being only #18 in pass blocking. The answer is because the Eagles were SUCH a run-heavy team that their cumulative PFF grades were very good. Chip Kelly's O-line was filled with excellent run blockers, and Kelly called a ton of running plays. Kelly's playcalling minimized the weaknesses of his offensive linemen (some were below-average as pass blockers), and maximized the strengths of his offensive linemen (all were good run blocking), which led to a higher cumulative grade. Moral of the story: Having a coach that truly understands the strengths of his personnel helps...a lot.

So getting back to the main point - What's interesting is that while there are several top-5 O-lines in the group of top-10 offenses, there are also 3 offensive lines that were either average or below average. That suggests that while having good offensive line definitely helps an offense, it's not an absolute requirement. The Bears had excellent skill position players on offense to compensate for their average offensive line. The Seahawks had a great defense and a great special teams unit that gave their offense short fields to work with. Etc.

Offensive Linemen Ratings

Now, let's explore how individual players on the offensive line performed.

Most of the chart is self explanatory, but I defined a "Good" player on OL as being a player who graded in the top third at his position, an average player being a player who graded in the middle third at his position, and a "Bad" player on OL as a player who graded at the bottom third of his position. For players who missed time with injury, I combined his rating with the rating of his backup. For example, Seattle's Russell Okung is normally a very good left tackle, but he played hurt last year and was slightly below average. His backup LT who started several games in Okung's absence was TERRIBLE, so Seattle's LT (a combination of Okung and his backup) was "BAD" last year.

Team Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle Good/Avg/Bad
Denver Broncos GOOD GOOD GOOD AVERAGE GOOD 4 / 1 / 0
Chicago Bears AVERAGE GOOD AVERAGE AVERAGE ^ ** BAD ^
1 / 3 / 1
New England Patriots GOOD
GOOD ** BAD BAD GOOD 3 / 0 / 2
Philadelphia Eagles GOOD ** GOOD ** GOOD AVERAGE AVERAGE ^ 3 / 2 / 0
Dallas Cowboys GOOD ** BAD GOOD ^
GOOD GOOD
4 / 0 / 1
Cincinnati Bengals GOOD
GOOD BAD GOOD GOOD 4 / 0 / 1
Kansas City Chiefs GOOD ** BAD AVERAGE GOOD BAD ^ 2 / 1 / 2
Green Bay Packers BAD ^
GOOD GOOD GOOD BAD
3 / 0 / 2
Seattle Seahawks BAD BAD AVERAGE AVERAGE AVERAGE 0 / 3 / 2
New Orleans Saints BAD
GOOD ** AVERAGE GOOD ** GOOD 3 / 1 / 1
Miami Dolphins in 2014 GOOD** D. Thomas - ?
GOOD** S. Smith - ?
? 2 + ? / ? / ?

Key: ^ = Rookie, ** = made the Pro Bowl last season

Average for a top 10 offense: 2.7 GOOD  / 1.1 AVERAGE / 1.2 BAD

So looking at that chart, the majority of the offensive lines of top-10 offenses had at least 2 good players, according to PFF. However, they also had at least 2 average or bad players and that nonetheless didn't stop their offense from being top-10 in the NFL.

In my earlier article, I referred to teams generally having 2-3 "foundational" players on their offensive line who usually were drafted in the earlier rounds of the draft. That pattern was purely based on the draft pedigree of their players. Now, looking at PFF grades, you see a very similar pattern where most top-10 offenses have around 2 or 3 "good to great" players. In other words, most good offenses do need more than just 1 good offensive lineman, but most also don't need 5 good players either.

So if you're looking at what works in the NFL, offensive line doesn't become a huge need once you have at least 2 good players. It becomes more of a luxury at that point, similar to how a team that has 2 very good cornerbacks definitely would become better if they had a 3rd good cornerback, but in that scenario, that lack of a third good CB isn't a critical weakness. The Dolphins meanwhile have 2 "good to great" players slotted to start for their offensive line in 2014 in Branden Albert and Mike Pouncey. In addition, the Dolphins have a former 3rd round pick in Dallas Thomas who struggled when asked to play right tackle last year but is likely to move back to guard this year for 2 reasons.

First, a source reportedly told Armando Salguero of The Miami Herald that the Dolphins plan on addressing right tackle in the draft.

Second, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross (who regularly meets with the Dolphins' GM and coach to hear their strategy) openly stated the Dolphins plan on drafting a right tackle this year:

Ross said the Dolphins have a plan for addressing the line and added, "We'll get a right tackle in the draft and then we'll see what else he have to get."


Read more here: http://miamiherald.typepad.com/dolphins_in_depth/2014/03/steve-ross-not-worried-about-the-offensive-line.html#storylink=cpy

So courtesy of Salguero's source and the Miami Dolphins' owner's "openness" about his team's draft strategy, fans can reasonably guess that while head coach Joe Philbin is still being vague when talking to the media about whether the team has settled on assigning Thomas to either guard or tackle, internally, they've likely decided he's a guard, and they want to address right tackle in the draft. The team may try to add another guard in the draft to compete with Thomas and free agent acquisition Shelley Smith, but that isn't as certain as the team's intention to add a right tackle.

Conclusions...

So my previous article concluded that most top-10 offenses have 2 or 3 early round picks on the offensive line along with 2-3 complementary players in the later rounds (round 4 or later). The majority either had just 1 Pro Bowler or none. Nearly half started 1 rookie, and the 2nd best scoring offense in the NFL (Bears) started 2 rookies, including one in round 5. That was based purely on draft pedigree.

This second analysis finds that the offensive lines of top-10 offenses generally have around 2 or 3 "foundational" players who are rated at the top third of their position on the offensive line by Pro Football Focus. Teams then try to surrounded those 2 or 3 "good to elite" players with complementary players to build a functional 5-man unit. Would a team be better with a 3rd elite offensive lineman if they only have 2? Absolutely, so if the Dolphins have a chance to acquire a third very good offensive lineman in the draft, they should if he's the best player available.

However, if there are no draft prospects available at #19 that project as being any better than "average," then there's no reason to reach for average so early in the draft. Rather than pass up the chance to draft one of the best tight ends or linebackers or safeties, etc. available, the team should take the best available talent in round 1, and then try to find an "average" starter in rounds 2-4. If that doesn't work, they can sign a roughly league-average free agent tackle for a year before trying to find a long-term solution next year. So while the Dolphins are very likely to take an offensive tackle early in the draft, it might not be in round 1 if the team doesn't believe any tackles available when they pick are capable of becoming a foundational player.

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